Shah Abbas overthrew his father, built a mighty army, unified Safavid Iran - and ruled during a period of stunning cultural production. Kanishk Tharoor takes it in at the British Museum After attending to matters of state, the Islamic rulers of a few centuries ago would retire to their libraries, where - perhaps with a cup of wine and the company of musicians - they surrendered to the eternal human pleasure of looking at oneself. Pious "defenders of the faith" they may have been, but their submission to God was hardly self-effacing. As early as the 15th-century, Ottoman sultans sought out Venetian artists to draw their portraits in the latest Italian styles. In 16th-century India, the Mughal emperor Akbar had the Hindu and Muslim painters of his workshops depict him in the form of Sikandar (Alexander the Great), the ideal hero and king. Meanwhile, in Iran, a young shah consolidated his hold over a fractious polity not only with the strength of his sword, but by the power of his image.
Shah Abbas: the Remaking of Iran, a new exhibition at the British Museum, explores early modern Iran through the blossoming of cultural production that occurred under the rule of Shah Abbas (1571-1629), remembered as one of the nation's greatest rulers. Abbas reunited and extended the sway of Iran's Safavid empire to some of its largest dimensions ever. He presided over an economic boom. He codified Shi'ism as the state religion of Iran, yoking the faith to the country's national character. And throughout his rule he was keenly aware of the monumentality of his biography, and of the importance of building a visual culture of power.
From the beginning, Abbas's 42-year reign exhibited the ruthless and energetic ambition that would define it throughout. In 1587, at the prickly age of 17, he engineered a coup against his father Mohammad, a weak and decrepit ruler who had allowed the Safavid state to shrink and crumble. After imprisoning his father, Abbas executed the very noble who helped facilitate the putsch, lest anyone think the boy-shah weak. The reward for these usurpations was a state in turmoil. Uzbeks and Ottoman Turks nibbled away at Iran's edges, while ceaseless tribal feuds left it fissured from within.
Abbas's reforms sprung from a centralising impulse that lifted Iran from the precipice of collapse to the heights of the world stage. He swiftly checked the main cause of internal unrest - the state's over-reliance on the troublesome Qizilbash warriors, fractious Turkic tribes who spent as much time fighting each other as they did fighting for their Safavid overlords. In a move that echoed the Ottoman use of janissaries devoted to the sultan, Abbas increasingly built his armies with ghulam warriors, Georgian and Armenian converts to Islam whose elevated position within Safavid society was dependent on the shah, and therefore were more reliable instruments of the state than the Qizilbash. He modernised his forces to include musketeers and artillery. Better organised and more purposefully commanded, Abbas's army pushed back against Safavid Iran's enemies, pressing west into Ottoman holdings, sweeping the Portuguese out of Hormuz and the Gulf, and re-establishing Safavid rule over portions of central Asia.
In 1592, Abbas moved his capital from dusty Qazvin in the north to Isfahan, in the middle of Safavid domains. His successful re-energising of the economy and channelling of the booming trade between the Silk Road and the Gulf had already brought great wealth to the city, where the arrival of political heft and patronage encouraged a flowering of the arts. With its shining new mosques and the gilded work of its artists, Isfahan became the enduring symbol of Abbas's reign and the growth it created; a Persian saying from the 17th century had it that "Isfahan is half the world". The British Museum's exhibition focuses in large part on the architecture and cultural products of the city, like the peerless miniatures of the painter Riza-yi Abbasi and the ornate calligraphy of Ali Riza Abbasi, both of whom remain emblematic of a period of change and resurgence in Iranian history.
Riza's work truly shines in the midst of objects that are more often pretty than inspiring. Persian miniature endures the misfortune of forever dwelling in the shadow of its Mughal counterpart - it was in India that Islamic miniature reached its elegant and beguiling best. But Riza's feathery paintings and sketches are endlessly absorbing. Where miniature often succumbs to an over-infatuation with colour, his black ink drawings illuminate with austerity. In a depiction of an anonymous scribe, for example, Riza paints his subject - the drift of his long beard, the folds of his clothes, the resigned focus of his eyes - with an incredible lightness. The only colours on the brown parchment are the grey of the man's turban and the brilliant white of the open book before him. Another stunning example of Riza's touch is a tableau of the legendary lover Majnun with a dog in the wilderness: the young man is framed by a landscape at once ethereal and bleak, its snaking trees a whisper of ghostly beauty and the solitude of love.
Other artworks on display evoke the lively world of Abbas's court. One miniature of the period shows a gathering of noblemen seated outdoors on lush carpets, gazing at exquisitely detailed birds winging their way across the top of the frame. The diversity of the court is striking; Uzbek, Turkic, Arab, Indic and Persian styles and people rub up against each other in the cluttered scene. Similar diversity is characteristic of Mughal representations. The shade of skin, the almond slant of an eye, the fall of a turban - such markers distinguished not only individuals, but also races. Long before European scholars and artists began categorising (and miscategorising) the "peoples" of the Orient (a process postcolonial critics trace to the 18th and 19th centuries), Islamic miniaturists already had in place a full visual ethnography of their plural societies.
Under Abbas, Iran (with Isfahan at its beating heart) grew increasingly international and cosmopolitan. The country sustained a multicultural and multi-religious society (and somehow still does, despite the overweening ideology of its government). Abbas encouraged this by relocating large populations of Armenians and Georgians to other portions of the Safavid realm, particularly to Isfahan, where the Armenians were given their own neighbourhood. (Empires through the ages - from the Romans to the Soviets - have forcefully shifted peoples within their territory in order to minimise the possibility of rebellion and to tie social groups closer to the ruler.) The Remaking of Iran contains many fine examples of Armenian Christian gospels, chalices and crosses that were produced and used in churches in Isfahan and other Safavid cities. Under Abbas, Armenians served principally as merchants and intermediaries along the immense trade route that brought goods out of Mughal India and drained silver from Europe, a bustling commerce that also attracted Europeans, Indians, Arabs and others to Iran.
As he shaped his capital into a glowing world city, Abbas also restored the sanctity of his kingdom's peripheries. In 1597, he recaptured the important pilgrimage site of Mashhad in the eastern province of Khurasan. Desecrated by the Uzbeks, Mashhad was the fortunate recipient of waqf donations from Abbas, who invested heavily in the Shia shrine's renovation. The exhibition boasts a rich sampling of Abbas' gifts to such sites of pilgrimage, treasure troves that contained manuscripts, fine silk carpets and large armies of delicate Chinese-made porcelain pottery. As with most of the sacred places of religion, earthly wealth underlined the holy purity of faith.
The attention Abbas paid to Shia holy sites stemmed not just from his own religious belief, but also from shrewd political calculation. Pilgrimage centres like Mecca and Medina in the Hejaz and Najaf and Karbala in Iraq were in the hands of the Ottomans (though Baghdad and its surrounding areas briefly came under Persian control from 1623 to 1638). Promoting the shrines at Mashhad, Ardabil and Qom as alternatives helped cement a distinctive Safavid state ideology, one with a robust Shiism as its guiding faith. Abbas's great-grandfather Ismail had already declared Iran to be a Shia state in 1501, but Abbas did much more to make Shi'ism part of the country's national identity. In doing so, Abbas bolstered his own image as the protector of the Shia faith, a role the Safavids had always reached for in their claims of descent from the martyred Imam Ali.
But Abbas was not simply a pragmatic, politicking king. The curators tell us, for instance, that in 1601 Abbas walked barefoot nearly one thousand kilometres to the shrine of Imam Riza in Mashhad, where he spent four months performing menial tasks like sweeping its floor. And while many miniatures from his reign depict the frenetic, colourful world of urban and courtly life, others - including a few in the exhibition - focused instead on pilgrims and the empty, stark landscape of their lonely travels. Abbas straddled these two worlds. His devotion, though cultivated, was real. In public, he sought to meld temporal power with religious piety. As Iskandar Munshi Beg, a Safavid court chronicler, put it: "He is equally at home on the dervish's mat and the royal throne." The many portraits and miniatures of Abbas in the exhibition reinforce this dual personality: a soft, almost watery gaze clashes with the stern cast of his face, distinguished by his long, drooping warrior's moustache.
Unfortunately, the exhibition fails to delve much deeper into Abbas's biography. It mentions briefly, almost only in passing, that he blinded and killed his own sons, that he butchered freethinking Sufi dervishes, and that, in later years, his reputation within Iran sunk, thanks in large part to the infamy of his more tyrannical deeds. In the eyes of the exhibition, Abbas was merely a cunning and competent bureaucrat who also happened to nurse a penchant for religion. His darker aspects - and some softer ones (the exhibition includes a miniature of him nestled alongside a handsome young wine-drinking "dandy") - are glossed over.
But what is most unsatisfying about the the exhibition is its implicit suggestion that an entire universe of artistic production was spurred only by the will of a single king. One can almost sense the artwork - particularly the miniatures, the most complex and engaging pieces in the show - chafing against the simple captions of the curators, which again and again explain delicate brush-strokes solely by reference to Abbas's political aspirations. This problem extends beyond this exhibition and well beyond the bounds of Iranian history. When we consider old art and old poetry (particularly from the non-western world), we are too often told to understand it first as affirming of dominant values and trends. It is unfortunate that these exquisite works, many beautiful and fascinating in their own right, are enlisted, like so many Safavid soldiers, only to march in formation with the ambitions of their shah.
Kanishk Tharoor, an editor at OpenDemocracy, is a frequent contributor to The Review.